Universal Colliery, Senghenydd. Located at the head of the Aber Valley near Caerphilly, the Universal shafts were started by the Universal Steam Coal Company in 1892-3 and were completed in 1897 at a depth of nearly 650 yards. The colliery was developed rapidly and employed 1,612 men in 1910 working the Four Feet, Six Feet and Nine Feet Seams of prime steam coal. Taken over by Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Collieries Ltd. in 1905, the colliery suffered the worst disaster in the history of British coal mining when 440 miners lost their lives in an explosion on the morning of Tuesday, October 14, 1913. The colliery was closed in 1928.
Senghenydd Pit Disaster in Glamorgan, when on the 14 October 1913 no less than 440 lives were lost in a violent explosion. The coal dust had not been dealt with properly, a matter about which the Chief Inspector of Mines took a most serious view at the inquiry, and on behalf of the Home Office, the Inspector prosecuted the owners and manager for breaches of the Coal Mines Act. On the coal dust charges, the manager was fined £5 or 14 days in goal. Altogether there were convictions on five charges, and the total fines were £24. The local newspaper headed its report, "Miners lives at One and a Penny Farthing each, "(Five and a Half Pence)
It was obvious that the penalties inflicted for breaches of mining law, bore no relation to the gravity of the offences committed, nor were they on such a scale as to be an effective deterrent. How many more lives were lost under similar circumstances?
The explosion was the worst in the history of British mining. Four hundred and thirty nine men and boys were killed in the explosion or died from the effects of the afterdamp and one man lost his life the following day by a fall of stone while he was fighting a fire on the Main West Level.
The Universal Colliery was at the head of the Aber Valley, Glamorganshire and was about 12 miles as the crow flies from Cardiff. The colliery was owned by The Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Limited and Mr. Edward Shaw was the Agent and manager of the colliery. He had been manager for 12 years and agent for the last four. Under him were two managers, one for the east Side and one for the West. On the West Side there were three overmen, one each for the Kimberley and Ladysmith districts, one for the Mafeking and one for the Pretoria. Under them there were 14 firemen. On the day shift Edward Jones was fireman in the Pretoria which had 27 working places and a total of 79 men, colliers, hauliers, wallers, repairers and others.
D.T. Edwards was in the East Ladysmith with 20 working places and 23 men, Rees Thomas in the West Ladysmith with 28 working places and 89 men, Evan Jones in the Kimberley with 18 working places and 50 men, W.H. Childsley in the West Mafeking with 46 working places and 125 men, Fred William also in the West Mafeking with 11 working places and 31 men and John Jones in the Bottanic with 17 working places and 54 men.
On the night shift, Richard Davies was the fireman in the Pretoria district which had 6 working places and he had charge of 55 men, John Skym in the East Ladysmith with 13 working place and 29 men, Morris Roberts in the West Ladysmith with 3 working places and 46 men, Ben Thomas in the Kimberley with 4 working places and 37 men, Richard Davies in the West Mafeking with two working places and 18 men along with James Opie in the same district with 9 working places and 48 men and Nic Sands in the Bottanic with 7 working places and 36 men.
The day firemen went down at 3.30 a.m. and ascended at 1.0 p.m. while the colliers and others went down between 5.10 to 6 a.m. and came up at 2 p.m. Coal drawing was carried on from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the firemen on the repairing shifts went down with their men and stayed with them. The day shift went down at 2 p.m. and came up at 10 p.m. and the night shift went down at 9 p.m. and ascended at 5 a.m.
The firemen, who went down at 3.30 a.m., went down two hours before the men and made their statutory examination of the working places. They then went to the pit bottom and met the men at the lamp locking stations. The Act stated that the workings had to be inspected not more than two hours before the commencement of the shift. At most collieries in the country, there were meeting stations in the district which were a short distance from the face but at Senghenydd there was only one station from the whole of the west side and that was 440 yards from the shaft bottom. In the majority of cases the men then had to walk 1,300 yards to the first place.
William Chidsey, a fireman in the Mafeking District, said that it took him twenty minutes to get from the lamp station to the working face of his district, forty minutes to travel in and out again which left one hour twenty minutes for the inspection of the workings in his district. He had 44 stalls to examine and claimed that he could do this in the time. At the inquiry, the Commissioner, Mr. Redmayne, had serious doubts about this. A similar story was told by Morris Roberts, a night shift fireman, and John Skym, a fireman in the Ladysmith District, which led the Commissioner to the conclusion that the Rules were being breached.
The shafts had been sunk about 23 years previous to the accident and coal had been worked since 1896. There had been a serious explosion at the colliery on the 21st May 1901 and there were no firm conclusion as to the cause. Mr. S.T. Evans concluded in the report of the disaster by pointing out the importance:-
"That provision should be made for the prevention of the accumulation of coal dust and for the regular and efficient watering of the roads, roofs and sides in the main haulage and travelling ways in mines which are dry and dusty."
The seams that were worked at the colliery were the Four Feet, the Universal and the Nine Feet.
The underground workings were divided into two main divisions, the West Side, the East Side.
The Four feet was worked on the West Side and the Universal, and the Nine Feet were worked in the East Side and all theses workings were connected to one level by drifts.
There were two shafts, the Lancaster, which was a downcast and the York which was the upcast.
Both were 18 feet 6 inches in diameter and the depth from the surface to the Six Feet landing was 535 yards from which most of the coal was drawn. They were sunk to 650 yards and the York Pit also had a heading to the Nine Feet Seam.
Coal was wound from both shafts with the Lancaster shaft winding the majority. The bottom of each shaft was arched with masonry and the arching on the west side in the Six Feet landing extended for 124 yards from the shaft. A block of coal had been left to support the shafts, 500 yards in diameter and spread over forty two and three quarter acres.
The coal was worked by the long wall system, the width of the stalls being eleven yards from centre to centre. Very little timber was withdrawn and recovered as it was customary to leave the timber in the gob in South Wales. Mr Redmayne commented:-
"Of course the best practice both from safety and the economic point of view, is to take out the timber from the gob, but under poor roofs where the gob was stowed with rubbish right across the face, it may be impossible to do this and Mr. Shaw stated that at Senghenydd the roof broke immediately behind the face, that the goaf closed tight and there was always regular settlement and further that the character of the roof stone is such that little timber can be withdrawn. The even settlement of the goaf is desirable in the interests of safety, and the tighter the goaf is, the less unventilated space there is for accumulation of firedamp."
No explosives were used in getting of coal and for ripping in ground that was particularly hard, which was a rare occurrence in this mine, Robertite was used and the shots fired by authorised shot firers. No blasting was carried out on the day of the explosion and no shots had been fired since the previous Sunday, October 12th.
The colliery produced about 1,800 tons of coal per day which was filled into wagons which were of the common Welsh type, which were open at each end but for a bar and the coal piled well above the top of the trams. The main haulage from the Mafeking, west York, Botttanic and part of the No.2 South (Pretoria) Districts was carried out in the return airways. Only the main haulage from the Kimberley and Ladysmith Districts was entirely in the intake. Mines which were opened before the Coal Mines Act, 1911, were exempt from the requirements of Section 42 (4) which stated that, 'where the air current in the main return airway was found normally to carry half of one percent of inflammable gas, that airway shall not be used to haul coal.' Under the requirements of the Coal Mines act 1911, 'no tram for the conveyance of coal can be introduced into a mine after that date of the passing of the Act unless it is so constructed and maintained as to prevent as far as practicable coal dust escaping through the sides end or floor of the tram and after a period of five years from 16th December 1911, all trams whether old or new, have to conform to this requirement."